Photo: Big Issue Foundation UK
James Bowen is a former UK Big Issue vendor and bestselling author who lives in London. The 35-year-old’s first book, A Street Cat Named Bob (2010), spent 76 weeks at the top of the Sunday Times’ bestseller list and has been translated into 30 languages. The book told the story of James’s encounter with an injured stray cat, whom he named Bob. Before he found Bob, James had slept rough and battled drug addiction. But as James nursed the cat back to health he discovered that this was no ordinary moggie. Bob soon became James’s ever-present sidekick, charming customers who stopped to buy the Big Issue or listen to James’s busking. Pretty soon the pair became local, then internet, celebrities – ultimately attracting the interest of a London literary agent, who asked James to tell his and Bob’s story.
In the four or so years since the first Bob book was published, several more have come out. Now James and Bob have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, their own YouTube channel and a movie in the works. On a recent whirlwind trip to Australia, James Bowen made some time to visit the Big Issue offices and spoke to staff writer/editor Sophie Quick.
At the end of the first book you’re coming off subutex (a drug to help addicts ease of heroin dependency) and you’ve reunited with your estranged mother. What’s happened since then?
It’s been absolutely insane. Going from selling The Big Issue to being a number one author has just been an incredible shock. Busking and Big Issue-ing was what I was doing for many years but with Bob our notoriety has just kind of built up since 2010. It’s been crazy. People take pictures all around the world of Bob books. Anywhere in the world – on the top of the Swiss Alps or something – people will take a photo holding the book… So now I’m busy writing, touring and doing publicity and doing charity work.
Have you had many responses from other people who have been homeless?
Every month a huge box of mail that’s sent to the publishers is forwarded on to me. I try to reply to all of it. We’ve got a second YouTube channel, which is going to have something called ‘Bob Replies’, where we will be replying to people and the letters they’ve sent. There are people who have been homeless, there are people who tell me about their own pets and sometimes their stories are really sad. But it’s great that I’ve opened so many people’s eyes to the plight of the homeless and to animal welfare.
What’s a typical day like for you these days?
I wake up at about 7am every day and first I usually take Bob to the park. He has a litter tray but he prefers to go outside. I get back and get on the computer and answer all the emails and try to get through the mail. Then I do a bit of the social media and see what I can do for any charities that ask for any kind of assistance. That’s pretty much the day. Then there’s the average day when I’m writing books and there’s the back and forth between me and [writing partner and mentor] Garry Jenkins on what we’re writing… But I pinch myself every morning. I have become a workaholic! Whereas before when I was on drugs I didn’t give a stuff. Bob really did change my life. He gives me drive.
You’re here in Australia visiting friends (including The Big Issue) and family. How do you feel about leaving Bob behind in London?
To get to Australia, Bob would have to travel in a cargo hold and I don’t think he deserves to do that. He should have his own first-class seat. If he was going to travel cargo then maybe I’d have to travel cargo, too. Having slept rough, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem. But right now he’s at home being cared for and pampered by my assistant. And I skype Bob every day. I’ll be skyping him tonight because he’s been doing a photo shoot for some merchandise. We’re releasing stationery and calendars and all that. He nuzzles up against the screen but he gets a bit confused because he can see me and hear my voice but he can’t smell me.
In A Street Cat Named Bob you describe the challenges of working as a Big Issue vendor. What misconceptions do people have about people who make a living on the street?
It’s incredibly hard work being a Big Issue vendor. So many people don’t realise that Big Issue vendors actually have to buy the magazines first [before they sell them for profit]. They [also] have to find a stable pitch, they have to build up a customer base. There are so many people driving past and going “get a job!” or spitting at you and things like that. There can be violent, alcoholic people coming out of pubs…they think you’re a waste of space and don’t realise how hard you’re working.
What’s next for you and Bob?
There’s a film in preproduction. A company called Shooting Scripts has bought the option and we’re hoping it will be out at Easter in 2016. It would be interesting if they could get Daniel Radcliffe to play me… I think it would be good for him to do a grittier role. Bob will play Bob for the close-ups but not the action sequences. [The shooting] is going to be a bit complicated because Bob doesn’t like other cats. He thinks he’s a person, he takes offence to cats!
Like The Big Issue Australia's Facebook page to go in the running to win a signed copy of 'A Street Cat Named Bob' and a 2015 Big Issue calendar signed by James Bowen.
» Interview by Sophie Quick, The Big Issue's Staff Writer/Editor.